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Fish stew makes sense. And not just because liquid is the creatures’ natural habitat—swimming arguably what they do best, in death as in life. But also because fish and shellfish are so easily ruined by too much heat. Gently simmering stock coaxes the lovely, succulent flesh towards doneness, just kind of persuading it to become cooked without forcing the matter.
For Matthew Hranek, there is an even deeper logic to fish stew. It’s a culmination of several threads spun through the life of this photographer, blogger (thewilliambrownproject.com), TV host on Esquire Network’s “Alternate Route”, and style editor at Conde Nast Traveler. Because long before he was any of those things, he was a boy in upstate New York, hunting and fishing with his dad, and cooking and eating whatever he caught. After moving to New York City, he fell in with a band of photographer-fishermen, and learned the secrets of salt-water casting. “None of us has regular jobs,” he says, leaving them just the kind of big, empty time that fishing requires.
For Matt, making stock is a necessary offshoot of this pastime. “The guys I fish with just want the fillets; there are all these heads and tails left over.” Matt happily commandeers them. “Part of my DNA is to not waste—I know the scraps have culinary value.” No kidding. Homemade fish stock is one of the glories of the kitchen. Left in the refrigerator for a day or two, “it gets so amazing,” says Matt, “like fish jello.” It also adds incredible depth to any seafood dishes, not just soup.
Still, the outlines of this recipe are quite forgiving: The fennel/tomato/pastis notes harmonize with almost any seafood; and once you’ve tried it, you can whip up a quick-and-easy version using either water or vegetable stock in less than half an hour. The only essential, unbreakable rule is that the fish and shellfish be utterly fresh.
Not a problem when you’ve just pulled the flapping creatures from the water yourself. For Matt, transforming his catch into a meal for his wife, Yolanda, and daughter, Clara, is the culmination of a day spent fishing. “This meal links the people at home with the experience I just had.” And the stew tells the story.
Words by Celia Barbour.
Matt Hranek's Fish Stew
- 2 large fish heads - striped bass or other meaty fish best, gills removed
- Several sprigs fresh thyme
- Several sprigs fresh parsley
- 2 leeks, trimmed and rinsed free of grit
- Several cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 onions, peeled
- 1 shallot, peeled
- 1 carrot
- Several bay leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 28 ounce tin whole plum tomatoes, chopped
- 1 pound stripped bass, skin removed, cut into 2 inch chunks
- 1 pound calamari, both bodies and tentacles,
- 3 small bulbs fennel, quartered
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 small dried pepperocini or other hot dried chili
- 2 dozen little neck clams, scrubbed free of grit
- 1 pound bay scallops
- 1 pound large head on shrimp
- 1/3 cup Pastis or Ouzo
- 1 Boule, for serving
Rinse fish heads and place in a large stock pot. Bundle together thyme, parsley and one leek, tie with kitchen string and add to pot. Add a few cloves garlic, one whole onion, shallot and carrot to the pot. Fill pot with about 12 cups cold water. It should cover stock ingredients by several inches. Add bay leaves. Set over high heat, bring liquid to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer about 11/2 hours. Remove stock from heat and strain liquid, discarding solids. but not without rescuing cheeks from fish heads for future use (Matt makes fish cakes when there is enough meat). Reserved liquid should measure about 8 cups.
Heat 1/4 olive oil in another large stock pot or heavy bottomed dutch oven. Finely chop remaining leek and onion and add to pot. Sweat until tender and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Do not let brown. Add white wine and simmer a few minutes to burn off alcohol. Add tomatoes and reserved fish stock. Bring liquid to a boil and then reduce heat. Begin layering in fish - bass first and then calamari (bodies cut into thick rings). Season well with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. You can be quite generous now and go more slowly in the end. Crumble in dried pepperocini. Add clams, scallops and shrimp. Cover and poach in just barely simmering water about 20 minutes. Add Pastis or Ouzo and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper as needed. Slice bread, brush with olive oil and grill until golden brown. Rub slices with garlic. Serve soup in big bowls to encourage generous portions. Provide olive oil for drizzling.
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